The issue of effort often arises for spiritual practitioners who are past the stage of intellectually accepting the view of nonduality, yet are still new to the practice of training the mind. This issue arises after we learn that our ego identity is unreal and that the sense of doership is a delusion, and therefore that we have no ability to will ourselves into enlightenment. However, the mystical traditions all attest to the requirement of spiritual practice in order to attain the goal of liberation. So although we cannot be happy as we are, we are stuck seeking for happiness with what we have.
This raises a contradiction which is twofold. On the one hand, there is the paradox that we are actually seeking our own annihilation. Under delusion, we fear suffering and death, and desire happiness; yet if we are clever, we realize that our desire for happiness is what is producing our suffering. So we find ourselves in the ridiculous position of desiring to be without desire. Upon further progress, it becomes apparent that the nature of the sense of self is to desire. Separation is unsatisfactory. Therefore, as mature spiritual aspirants, we realize that what is being sought is the end of our sense of a separate self. This is a problem for the ego, which will protect itself at all costs.
On the other hand, the second aspect of this contradiction is that we are required to discover our ego's inability to produce happiness through practice. We must hone our attention to the point where we witness firsthand the mind's trickery; otherwise we are actually practicing delusion, not liberation. The mind must find its limit for itself—it must reach the dead-end of its own undoing.
The mistake for those of us who believe that we have reached the stage of no-effort, yet continue to be miserable, comes from misidentifying the difficulty of controlling the mind with the impossibility of willing oneself into enlightenment. Certain advanced teachings tell us to release all effort, that effort is bondage. Ultimately, of course, effort is released when the delusion of doership is relinquished. This is the very end of the spiritual path, and culminates in the Bliss Supreme. As long as the mind remains impure and the deluded seeker suffers, effort is required to seek the source of mind and rest as the Self.
Ramana Maharshi, in the Upadesa Manjari (Spiritual Instruction), says in response to the question: "Is the state of 'being still' a state involving effort or an effortless state?"
It is not an effortless state of indolence. All mundane activities which are ordinarily called effort are performed with the aid of a portion of the mind and with frequent breaks. But the act of communion with the Self or remaining still inwardly is intense activity which is performed with the entire mind and without break. Maya (delusion or ignorance) which cannot be destroyed by any other act is completely destroyed by this intense activity which is called 'silence' (mouna).
Sri Ramana's answer points out a key to understanding the question of effort on the spiritual path. The ego fears the inevitability of its own destruction, and therefore resists spiritual practice. Initially it resists entry onto the path, but once entry is won by diligent persistence, the ego resists practice in more subtle ways. For the clever seekers among us, this resistance may arise as an intellectual defense against effort. The cunning ego convinces us that the difficulty we experience in calming our mind and seeking its source must be identical with the impossibility of willing ourselves into liberation. This cannot be farther from the truth. In fact, what happens to us is that we unwittingly nourish in ourselves a deep indolence, which acts as a powerful protection for the ego to prevent us from making any real progress in spiritual practice.
For those of us who find ourselves in this position, the best remedy is disciplined meditation. Inquiry at this point has reached a standstill. The clever mind is too complicated for inquiry to pick out the root and locate the source of the Self. The mind must be made pliable, calm, constant, and yielding to gentle attention. It is quite useful for those of us at this stage to practice breath-control (pranayama or qigong) to aid in quieting the mind and achieving calm-abiding states. Also, it should be noted that the requirements for renunciation of the thirst for sensual enjoyments, calmness of temper and kindness towards all beings, relinquishment of distracting activities, and a strong desire for final liberation, are all absolute requirements. Without these, the mind simply will never turn towards the goal.
Only once the mind has become calm can deeper levels of investigation be performed. We must watch constantly, in all circumstances, how our mind splits experience into good and bad, favorable and unfavorable, pleasure and pain. We must see to the root of this dualistic activity of the mind and, through great insight, rest as the awareness that precedes and includes all such activity. Only through repeatedly resting as this awareness, completely mindful of all dualistic movement, over a great period of time, can the source of the Self be discerned as transcendent of all dualities. And only through the whole-being movement towards maintaining this rest as the Self in all activities may the latent egoic tendencies be uprooted and the Final Peace be attained. Thus the goal of spirituality requires the supreme effort of committing one's whole-being to the path.
This quandary of misconstruing the difficulty of controlling the mind with the limits of egoic activity is just one of many side-steps along the path that are common to seekers. Modern culture, however—with its relative absence of deference to the sacred core of life, concurrent with its over-emphasis on intellectual gymnastics—leads many who discover the nondual teachings to reach this dead-end. Because there is little value put on the sacred life in our culture, many find no time for spiritual practice. Therefore they find it an almost insurmountable goal to actually practice breath-control or meditation to the sufficient degree required for progress. This is unfortunate. And some seekers, because they think that they know the truth through cleverness, convince themselves that they have reached or at least come close to the goal when in fact their minds are as disturbed by negative thinking as ever! This is the power of the clever ego's reaction towards self-preservation.
If you wish to rest in your true nature which is Peace itself, then listen to the advice of those who have come before you, and put into practice the teachings of the great mystics. Until your mind has attained the clear purity of constant, unwavering rest as the pure bliss of being; until the movement of your intellect—to judge and compare, grasp at negative mental states, and wallow in the sloth of inattention—has been completely rooted out; until you have absolutely no doubt that your identity is the one identity of All Being, and that the incomparable Peace of Heart you have attained is beyond all conception, preservation, or destruction... keep practicing. Although you cannot will yourself awake, all you have to sacrifice is what is required of you to make you empty, to receive the fullness of grace. For, as Anandamayi Ma puts it:
Exert yourself to the limit of your power, however small it may be. He is there to fulfill what has been left undone.
In Truth, it is as she said. This is my best advice. May all beings attain to the natural state.
-Matt, Spring 2013